National television audience on ESPN – Thursday night game – Buffs an underdog …

Sound familar?

It was the same scenario the Buffs faced last September 18th. West Virginia came to Boulder ranked 21st in the nation. The Buffs were 2-0, but were coming off a disturbingly close come-from-behind win over Eastern Washington.

Few were giving Colorado much chance to win.

The result? Colorado 17, West Virginia 14 (OT).     (Note: this game is the Archive game of the Week, found at the bottom of the front page of the website, if you need a quick feel good Buff fix).

What will it take for the Buffs to pull off a similar upset in 2009? Let’s check out this week’s “T.I.P.S.” …

T – Talent

For the first time in 2009 (but certainly not the last), the Buffs come up short when it comes to comparing talent on the roster. It may have been expected (hoped) that there would have been a drop off in talent when West Virginia quarterback Pat White, along with four of his offensive linemen, left for the NFL, but West Virginia’s offense is just as potent in 2009 … if not more so.

In 2008, under the leadership of the versatile Pat White, West Virginia was 59th in the nation in total offense. This season, under senior quarterback Jarrett Brown, the Mountaineers are 10th in the country in total offense. Instead of relying on almost exclusively on the rushing game, West Virginia is presenting a more balanced attack. Brown has completed 61-of-89 passes for 798 yards and five touchdowns (to go with five interceptions). For comparison’s sake, Cody Hawkins is 71-of-135 for 753 yards, five touchdowns and four interceptions. Brown, though, brings more than passing accuracy to his game (68.5% completion rate, compared to 52.5% for Hawkins). Brown also has 208 yards rushing (on just 38 attempts – over five yards per carry).

Brown’s favorite target is wide receiver Jock Sanders, who has 29 catches for 309 yards in three games, including a team-record tying 12 catches last weekend against Auburn. If you were with CU at the Game last spring, you know that Jock Sanders was arrested for DUI last February. Sanders was also charged with underage drinking (he was 20 at the time, blowing a .125 BAC). It was not the first altercation for Sanders, who pled guilty to a misdemeanor battery charge in March of 2008. West Virginia coach Bill Stewart suspended Sanders indefinitely last spring, and the suspension lasted … until fall camp. “I”ve thought about this for a long, long time,” said Stewart when he reinstated Sanders, “But he’s been through the grinder and he’s done everything we’ve asked him to.”

Touching, isn’t it? Can you imagine a CU player being given as many second chances? Can you imagine a CU player, after either one of these altercations (either the fighting or the DUI), not missing any game time?

Me, neither.

Okay, sour grapes. Football is not the be all and end all in Boulder, and the Buffs and their fans have to deal with that. On Thursday, they will have to deal with Jock Sanders, who is third in the nation in receptions per game (9.67). Sanders is also 22nd in the nation in punt returns, averaging almost 15 yards per attempt.

This is not to say that the Mountaineers have given up on the running game. Far from it. Junior Noel Devine had 133 yards on 26 carries in Boulder last season, on his way to 1,289 rushing yards on the year. In 2009, Devine has picked up right where he left off. In three games, Devine has 51 carries for 320 yards (over six yards per carry), and five touchdowns. Devine’s 106 yards per game average is the 16th-best average in the country.

On the other side of the ball, West Virginia has not been as potent as expected. The Mountaineers have given up 20 or more points in each of their games, including 20 points to Liberty in the opener, and 41 in a loss to Auburn last weekend. Last season, the Mountaineers were ranked 11th in the nation in scoring defense, giving up 17 ppg. So far in 2009, West Virginia is ranked 83rd.

The Buffs won’t be able to completely stop the Mountaineers’ offense. Colorado will have to rely on the defense to not give up big plays, and hope that the offense and special teams can make enough plays to post enough points to pull off the upset.

I – Intangibles

Can the Buffs win their first road game in almost two seasons? An objective answer would be “no”. The Colorado defense posted a shutout against Wyoming last weekend, but most observers remain skeptical. The memories of Toledo quarterback Aaron Opelt slicing up the Colorado defense the last time the Buffs ventured into the eastern time zone remain painfully fresh.

So what do the Buffs have going for them? Not much, but here are a couple of straws at which to grasp:

1) The Buffs, if they start well, might be able to get into the heads of the Mountaineers. In 2008, West Virginia came into the Colorado game off of a loss (to East Carolina), and started slow against Colorado (the Buffs scored on the opening drive, then, after a WVU turnover, quickly scored again). Even though West Virginia dominated much of the remainder of the game, the Mountaineers were never able to overcome their sluggish start. This season, West Virginia is coming into the Colorado game after a loss (to Auburn). A slow start on Thursday may make the natives a little restless in Morgantown, and the home team may be pressed into making mistakes.

2) It’s easier to have a long layoff after a win than a loss. Several Colorado players and coaches noted that practices this past week were better, with attitudes improved. Winning will do that. There is finally to have some confidence in the Colorado running game, supposed to be the hallmark of the 2009 Buffs. Against Wyoming, the Buffs only had 151 yards rushing, but it was by far the best effort of the season. “We dictated tempo,” said CU running backs coach Darian Hagan, “and it was our first time we were able to concentrate on the run game.” Last season, Rodney Stewart had 166 yards on 28 carries against the Mountaineers.

It will take a similar effort by Stewart and the Colorado offensive line for the Buffs to be successful against West Virginia.

P- Preparation / Schedule

On Thursday, the Buffs will complete a rare run through non-conference play. The West Virginia game will give the Buffs a game on Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday to open the season (while Dave Plati has yet to proclaim this as being the first time a team has opened with such a schedule, I wouldn’t be surprised to see such a claim in this week’s game notes). Still, there is no real advantage/disadvantage for the Buffs as Colorado takes to the road for a Thursday night game. Both teams are coming off of a bye week, with the next game not scheduled for either team scheduled until October 10th.

Will either team be looking ahead? No, not really. Both teams will open conference play with their following game. West Virginia takes to the road to play Syracuse, a team not exactly expected to occupy the attention of the Mountaineers. Last season, West Virginia sleep-walked its way to a 17-6 win over a team which would finish 3-9 and fire its coach. The national audience game, at home, is far more likely to occupy the Mountaineers’ attention.

Meanwhile, the Buffs cannot exactly be looking forward to their Big 12 opener, on the road against Texas. Even back in the heady days of August, when it appeared to many of us that a winning season was in the offing, the Texas game was written off as an “L”. That hasn’t changed, especially after the Longhorns thumped a UTEP team with credentials similar to that of CU’s, 64-7 (it could have been 90-7. Colt McCoy played only one series in the second half).

The score of last year’s game in Boulder was Texas 38, Colorado 14. My guess is that most Buffs would take that score again for 2009, no questions asked.

S – Statistics

Want a number? Try this one: -2.33.  What does that number represent? It’s the turnover margin for West Virginia. The Mountaineers have generated only three turnovers on defense in three games, but have turned the ball over ten times. West Virginia gave up the ball six times against Auburn, and those turnovers contributed directly to the 40-31 loss. The Mountaineers did everything right against the Tigers – more total yards (509 to 400), more first downs, fewer penalties, greater time of possession. What West Virginia didn’t win was the turnover battle, 6-to-1, including an interception return for a touchdown with 3:41 to play to break the Mountaineers’ back.

The Buffs have not exactly been tearing up the stats sheet with turnovers, however. The Colorado defense has generated five turnovers, while the Buffs have given up seven. Colorado ranks 89th in the nation in turnover margin; West Virginia 116th. One team will improve their numbers on Thursday.

Another pair of numbers which are related to the above: 35 and 83. West Virginia is ranked 35th in total defense, but is way down at 83rd in scoring defense. The message to the Colorado coaching staff should be clear: West Virginia has a good defense, and the points allowed are not indicative of the unit’s overall play. Simple equation: Turnovers = points.

By comparison, the Colorado defense has been better at not giving up points than it has been at surrendering yards. The Buffs are 101st in total defense after three games, giving up 410 yards per game. Statistically, the Buffs are marginally better at surrendering points, giving up almost 26 points per game, 77th in the nation.

Translation: the Colorado defense can be easily bent, but hasn’t been completely breaking. A few turnovers will help keep the points off the board.

More numbers: 2-14 and 4-14. The first is the Buffs’ road record under Dan Hawkins. Dave Plati continues to run his “Road Sweet Road” column in each week’s game notes, but the story about how the Buffs have done well on the road rings more hollow with each season under Dan Hawkins.

The second number, 4-14, represents the Buffs’ record in the past 3 1/4 seasons when the opposing team scores first. Colorado’s record when the Buffs score first is nothing to brag about – 10-12 – but it is a far sight better than the alternative.

So, can the Buffs beat the Mountaineers? Sure. Colorado was not supposed to defeat West Virginia last season, but managed to pull off the upset.

A national audience? Thursday night? Confidence from last year’s win? The momentum building from the Wyoming shutout?

Give me six turnovers from the Mountaineers, and 160 yards rushing from Speedy, then we’ll talk …

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